Saturday, January 14, 2006

A toast to Patiala
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghJUST as a Patiala Peg is double that of the regular measure that whisky drinkers take at one time, so the men and women of Patiala are larger in life than other Punjabis. The men are bigger built, better dressed, wear a style of turban smarter than that worn by other Sikhs; their women are easier on the eye and saucier. They speak a dialect of their own which is a mixture of Punjabi, Haryanvi, and Hindi. No one can match them in flattery: they can lay it on in shovelfuls. Anyone beguiled by their speech will do it at his risk: their principal concern is advancing their own future and will switch loyalties to suit their interests.

This is too broad a generalisation to be strictly accurate. It is based on the pattern of life set by the ruling family, principally the portly, cigar-smoking Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of the present Chief Minister of Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh. Like many other rulers of Indian states, he maintained a sizeable harem, second only to that of His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam was a measly specimen of humanity and no one knows how many women of his seraglio he was able to deflower.

Neel Kamal Puri
Neel Kamal Puri

Bhupinder Singh was a stallion of a man with a ravenous appetite for sex which became legendary. His progeny is said to have exceeded 80 sons and daughters. As in other princely states, women of his harem were graded according to status from maharani or patrani to ranis, concubines and keeps. So were their male offspring from Yuvraj (heir apparent), Raja, Lalji, Kaka, etc. Failing those grades, everyone was free to add the letter ‘K’ (for Kanwar-prince as a prefix to his name). Both princes and princesses were given English names, usually chosen by their English Anglo-Indian nannies as well as Sikh names from the Guru Granth Sahib. Thus they had Peters, Davids, Montys, Michaels, Cyrils, Cecils, Williams (including Williampal Singh), Ruby, Jewel, Diamond, Jani, etc.

Most of them were sent to school and college. During the British Raj it was Aitchison Chiefs College, Lahore, for boys, Catholic convents for girls. In the recent years, it has been Yadvindra or some other public school. They get their degrees. But getting a job or working for a living was regarded infra dig: that was for the hoi polloi, not for the aristocracy. For them, having a good time, hard-drinking and womanising was a whole-time job: it was the done thing.

A lower rung in the social ladder were large landowners who were punctilious in following customs and practices prevalent in Moti Bagh Palace. They lived in large mansions, ate well, drank hard and fornicated with reckless abandon. They too shunned work as something below their dignity. It is not surprising that with the change of time and after being deprived of much of their unearned income, they became misfits in the rapidly modernising Indian upper and middle class society. Their pretensions of aristocratic superiority often combined with bad manners became the butt of ridicule.

This is exactly how they have been portrayed by Neel Kamal Puri in her first novel The Patiala Quartet, (Penguin). Ludhiana-born Neel Kamal is a product of Yadvindra Public School and is currently teaching English literature in Chandigarh. She knows Patiala well and has chosen a zamindar family to depict how Patialvis are different from other Punjabis. The story is set in the time when Khalistani terrorism was in its worst phase. She handles her theme with the deftness of a born story-teller. Her main characters are lovable, odd-balls at odds with middle-class social norms. There is a lady much bothered by her teeth. Instead of going to her dentist periodically to have the cavities filled, she tells him to extract all her teeth and be done with them for times to come. When he starts to yank out the first healthy tooth, she cannot bear the pain and grabs the dentist by his testicles. Thereafter, he takes good care to keep his private parts beyond arm’s reach. Another girl, usually shy, is pursued everyday by a boy from a lower class while returning home from college on a bicycle. He professed his undying love for her day after day. Much to his surprise, one day she accepts his proposal for marriage. The day before the nuptial ceremony is to take place, the boy’s father asks for a car to be included in the dowry. While her parents are mulling over the demand, the girl calls off the marriage. The enraged suitor threatens to kill her. He appears every afternoon outside her large house and fires a shot in the air with his revolver. Soon the family got used to hearing the shots and know it is time for their afternoon tea.

Yet another lad, this time a bookworm, goes everyday to the town library followed by a pack of street dogs which wait outside till he comes out with yet another book.

There are innumerable episodes laced with subtle humour which make this novella highly readable. Being an academic, Puri is inclined to be somewhat verbose in her commentary and sparing in dialogues. These minor shortcomings do not take away anything from the narrative. The Patiala Quartet will rank among the best works of English fiction written by a Punjabi.

Happy New Year

Free from the vanities of the world,

Free from the quirks of life,

Free from our follies absurd,

Free from ignoble strife,

Free from worry, free from fear,

A Happy New Year to you, my dear,

Free from the dry tap, free from the power cut

Free from the telephone dead, free from a tyre phut,

Free from the officials’ arrogance, free from a friend’s pretence,

Free from a cantankerous neighbour, free from a faithless lover,

Free from a leader’s cut, free from a policeman’s butt

Free from insensitive law, free from the inflated bill,

Free from a swollen eye, free from the sleeping pill,

Free from a made-up face, free from the mad, mad race,

Full of bounty, full of grace

Of sunny days and nights clear.

A Happy New Year to you,

my dear.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)